2 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is something I wrote about Mark Harman’s translation of Amerika by Franz Kafka, which is the book we’re discussion at the first ever Writers & Books/Plüb Book Club. (Which my iPhone autocorrected to “Book Clüb,” so fuck and yes.)

Anyway, I’m not sure how I never read this before, but I am sure that this isn’t the perfect book for me to be reading at this time . . . Nevertheless, it’s Kafka, it’s stimulating, it brings things up, and I’ve tried to encapsulate my 2013 readerly reaction to this:

A couple years ago, some trickster posted the first page of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to a Yahoo group looking for advice about “his” new novel. Not surprisingly, the um, yahoos, didn’t recognize the source text and populated the message board with all sorts of terrible advice about the lack of action and the fact that he “knows what to do—just dump it and start over!”

Obviously, this provided a shitton of laughs for the literati, for those who respect DFW’s writing and know that these same yahoos probably cream themselves regularly over Twilight books and Fifty Shades.

Putting aside the snarky cultural divide between those who read “literature” and those who read “fiction,” there is an interesting corollary to this experiment: What happens when we dissociate a text from its author’s reputation?

In the case of Infinite Jest, I think the narrative strategies stand by themselves—that text simply reeks of freshness and risk-taking and competence and something new. (At least at this moment in time.) But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t cases when a reputation taints a book and makes it more than it is. Just look at the critical reaction to J-Franz’s Freedom. Take the Franzen mystique/name off the cover, give it to people with no idea, and the flaws in that book become screamingly apparent.

Anyway, my point in bringing this up: How does one read Kafka after everything in the world has become “Kafkaesque”?

‘When Karl appeared before them and greeted them, they put away the ledgers quickly and picked up some other large books, which they opened. One of them, evidently only a clerk, said: “I should like to see your identity papers.” “Unfortunately, I don’t have them with me,” said Karl. [. . .] “You’re an engineer?” asked the other man, who seemed to be the chief office manager. “Not yet,” Karl said quickly, “but—” “That’s quite enough, [. . .] then you don’t belong here. I would ask that you heed the signs.” [. . .] “Take this gentleman to the office for people with technical skills.” [. . .] In the office into which Karl was now taken, the procedure was, as Karl had foreseen, similar to that in the first office. However, on hearing that he had attended middle school, they sent him to the office for former middle school students. But once in that office, when Karl said that he had attended a European middle school, they declared that they were not responsible for such cases and requested that he be taken to the office for former European middle school students.’

This is funny . . . in a Kafkaesque way. (Sidenote: Reminds me of The Squid and the Whale, when the kid is trying to impress a girl by claiming to love “The Metamorphosis,” a story he’s never read. Him: “It’s really Kafkaesque.” Her: “That’s because it’s written by Kafka.”) But reading this now, after having read The Trial and The Castle and hundreds of other books influenced by this (I feel like George Saunders’s “CivilWarLand” is an updated version of the “Theater of Oklahama”) it feels predictable, like an episode of 30 Rock or something.

So, how do you read Kafka now?

To read the full piece, just click here. And yes, this is how I spent the first day of 2013—writing a review of Kafka. I LOVE YOU, THREE PERCENT READERS.

2 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple years ago, some trickster posted the first page of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to a Yahoo group looking for advice about “his” new novel. Not surprisingly, the um, yahoos, didn’t recognize the source text and populated the message board with all sorts of terrible advice about the lack of action and the fact that he “knows what to do—just dump it and start over!”

Obviously, this provided a shitton of laughs for the literati, for those who respect DFW’s writing and know that these same yahoos probably cream themselves regularly over Twilight books and Fifty Shades.

Putting aside the snarky cultural divide between those who read “literature” and those who read “fiction,” there is an interesting corollary to this experiment: What happens when we dissociate a text from its author’s reputation?

In the case of Infinite Jest, I think the narrative strategies stand by themselves—that text simply reeks of freshness and risk-taking and competence and something new. (At least at this moment in time.) But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t cases when a reputation taints a book and makes it more than it is. Just look at the critical reaction to J-Franz’s Freedom. Take the Franzen mystique/name off the cover, give it to people with no idea, and the flaws in that book become screamingly apparent.

Anyway, my point in bringing this up: How does one read Kafka after everything in the world has become “Kafkaesque”?

When Karl appeared before them and greeted them, they put away the ledgers quickly and picked up some other large books, which they opened. One of them, evidently only a clerk, said: “I should like to see your identity papers.” “Unfortunately, I don’t have them with me,” said Karl. [. . .] “You’re an engineer?” asked the other man, who seemed to be the chief office manager. “Not yet,” Karl said quickly, “but—” “That’s quite enough, [. . .] then you don’t belong here. I would ask that you heed the signs.” [. . .] “Take this gentleman to the office for people with technical skills.” [. . .] In the office into which Karl was now taken, the procedure was, as Karl had foreseen, similar to that in the first office. However, on hearing that he had attended middle school, they sent him to the office for former middle school students. But once in that office, when Karl said that he had attended a European middle school, they declared that they were not responsible for such cases and requested that he be taken to the office for former European middle school students.

This is funny . . . in a Kafkaesque way. (Sidenote: Reminds me of The Squid and the Whale, when the kid is trying to impress a girl by claiming to love “The Metamorphosis,” a story he’s never read. Him: “It’s really Kafkaesque.” Her: “That’s because it’s written by Kafka.”) But reading this now, after having read The Trial and The Castle and hundreds of other books influenced by this (I feel like George Saunders’s “CivilWarLand” is an updated version of the “Theater of Oklahama”) it feels predictable, like an episode of 30 Rock or something.

So, how do you read Kafka now?

According to all of the intros and quotes and whatnot, this new Mark Harman translation of The Missing Person (which is marked in his desire to not correct a single error—from the intentional misspelling of “Oklahama” to the slip from dollars into pounds to the lack of serial commas, which is ironic, considering this is the American edition) presents the “funny” aspect of Kafka’s writing. But to be completely honest, although there are a few fun scenes, I didn’t find this actually “funny” . . . I mean, maybe in an academic chortling sense, like in the various minor send-ups of the American Dream (Karl is a rags-to-riches-to-lift-boy story because America is fucked), or in certain lines, like “No one wants to be an artist, but everyone wants to be paid for his work.” Amerika isn’t one one-hundredth of one percent as funny as, say, Infinite Jest.

That’s not to say that this book isn’t really good—it absolutely is. But take “Kafka” off the cover, and it’s a 2.5 or 3 star book out of 5 for me.

The sort of social criticism found in here is interestingly contemporary in a lot of ways, but also strikingly pat for a well-read contemporary reader:

And perhaps he wouldn’t even have been admitted to the United States, which was very likely according to his uncle, who was familiar with the immigration laws, and the authorities would have sent him home, completely ignoring the fact that he no longer had a home country. For one could not hope for pity here in this country, and the things that Karl had read about America in that regard were quite true; here it was only those who were fortunate who truly seemed to enjoy their good fortune amid the indifferent faces on all sides.

And it’s this “indifference” that always clogs me up when I’m reading Kafka. Sticking to this novel, the number of injustices heaped on poor Karl is astounding and a bit crippling if you approach this book from a realist angle. All the dismissals and abuses, starting with the stoker and ending with Karl being held hostage to serve a severely overweight “singer,” are depicted in ways that are claustrophobic and infuriating.

One way to read Kafka is historically: He never went to America, but pulled this critique together through other sources, so what was he getting at exactly? And was the book supposed to end happily as he suggested, or like The Trial?

The unfinishedness of it all (the opening chapter, “The Stoker,” being the only part that was satisfactorily edited by Kafka himself) is another troubling aspect to approaching this. Sure, it gets scholars off in all sort of obtuse ways, but that doesn’t mean much to your standard educated reader. Sure, it’s “interesting” in ways that fill class time and shitty MLA presentations, but Amerika’s impact isn’t what it once might have been. The influence of the “Kafkaesque” mindset has, no doubt, and is crucial to understanding the period of art, literature, and society we’re currently living in, but the specific connection between this “novel” and the way one reads the world is a bit more tenuous.

What’s interesting about not-loving a pre-ordained book is that it makes me feel guilty. I’m intentionally eliding lots of aspects of this novel to make a really pedestrian point. That said, I think it’s easy as a publisher/review writer/wanna be respected reader to prop up the already blessed. This is one case where I don’t feel comfortable over-emphasizing the fun parts of the book, and would rather just say, “yeah, it’s just OK.”

11 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Sticking with PW for another post, Lynn Andriani has a great piece about three “iconic 20th-century novels being released in new translations” this fall: Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle (translated by Harry T. Willetts, and which restores nine chapters missing from the “lightened version” that’s currently available), Gombrowicz’s Pornografia (translated by Danuta Borchardt—the first version to be translated directly from the Polish), and Grass’s The Tin Drum (translated by Breon Mitchell, and which also restores a lot of missing material—here’s more complete info on Breon’s new translation).

All three of these are excellent novels, all deserving of retranslation and a featuring in PW, but here are three more books from 2009 worthy of mention:

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov (translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson): NYRB brought out this retranslation in April—the only version of The Foundation Pit to be based on the definitive edition that was published by Pushkin House in Moscow.

A true classic, here’s the description of the book from NYRB’s website:

In Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, a team of workers has been given the job of digging the foundation of an immense edifice, a palatial home for the perfect future that, they are convinced, is at hand. But the harder the team works, the deeper they dig, the more things go wrong, and it becomes clear that what is being dug is not a foundation but an immense grave.

The Foundation Pit is Platonov’s most overtly political book, written in direct response to the staggering brutalities of Stalin’s collectivization of Russian agriculture. It is also a literary masterpiece. Seeking to evoke unspeakable realities, Platonov deforms and transforms language in pages that echo both with the alienating doublespeak of power and the stark simplicity of prayer.

For more information, I highly recommend reading Bill Marx’s article on this book and listening to his interview with Robert Chandler.

The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov (translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson): We’re bringing this book out in December. By far one of the funniest Russian works of the twentieth century—even funnier than The Twelve Chairs. The Golden Calf has been translated a few times in the past (but poorly! Just check this chapter title from a previous translation: “Permit a Hireling of Capital to Enter,” which becomes “May a Capitalist Lackey Come In?” in ours), but never in full. Not only did the other translators work off the censored version, they dropped tons of sections, jokes, etc.

The Golden Calf relates the adventures of Ostap Bender and his merry crew of two-bit thieves as they try and out con a more successful con—one who has managed to become an “undercover millionaire” during the New Economic Period of the Soviet Union, when no citizen was allowed to accumulate so much wealth, and inflation devalued everything anyway.

The book is truly, gut-bustingly funny, as can be gleaned from this opening (or from this note “From the Authors”):

You have to be nice to pedestrians.

Pedestrians comprise the greater part of humanity. Moreover, its better part. Pedestrians created the world. They build cities, erected tall buildings, laid out sewers and waterlines, paved the streets and lit them with electricity. They spread civilization throughout the world, invented the printing press and gunpowder, flung bridges across rivers, deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, introduced the safety razor, abolished the slave trade and established that no less than 114 tasty, nutritious dishes can be made from soybeans.

And just when everything was ready, when our native planet had become relatively comfortable, the motorists appeared.

It should be noted that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But, somehow, the motorists quickly forgot about this. They started running over the mild-mannered and intelligent pedestrians. The streets—laid out by pedestrians—were taken over by the motorists. The roads became twice as wide, while the sidewalks shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. The frightened pedestrians were pushed up against the walls of the buildings.

Amerika: The Missing Person by Franz Kafka (translated by Mark Harman): This has been translated several times in the past as well, most recently by Michael Hofmann.

The story of seventeen-year-old Karl Rossman’s misadventures in America was left unfinished at the time of Kafka’s death, which is one reason for the various versions. Here’s a bit of background info from the Publisher’s Note:

Along with the growing international recognition of Franz Kafka as one of the great modern writers, scholars began to raise doubts about the editorial decisions made by Max Brod. Although the manuscript of Der Verschollene (The Missing Person) lacks chapter headings and often even chapter breaks, Kafka did jot down on a sheet of paper headings for the first six chapters (complete with page numbers). He left no such instructions for the remainder of the text. After Kafka’s premature death in 1924 of tuberculosis, Brod did everything he could to achieve for his friend the recognition that had largely eluded him during his lifetime. As a result, in editing the manuscript of this novel for its original German publication in 1927, Brod was, as he explained in his afterword, “primarily concerned with the broad line of the story, not with philological work.” [. . .]

Since 1978 an international team of Kafka experts ahs been working on German critical editions of all of Kafka’s writings, which are being published by S. Fischer Verlag with financial support from German government. [. . .] Harman’s translation is based on the restored text in the first volume, which corrected numerous transcription errors in the earlier editions and removed Brod’s editorial and stylistic interventions. In the restored text, for example, Schillemeit employs only the chapter headings mentioned by Kafka and inserts chapter or section breaks based on evidence gleaned from the manuscript.

Not sure how I feel about these sorts of “restorations” that eliminate an editor’s work, but I’m still interested in reading this new translation and comparing it to Hofmann’s.

Actually, to be honest, I’m interested in reading all six of these books . . .

....
Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >

I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >

Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

Read More >

Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

Read More >